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Tweets are Ruled as Public – A Discussion

February 11, 2011

This is interesting – in a case to the PCC (Press Complaints Commission) the content of your tweets have been ruled as public:

The Press Complaints Commission has made its first ruling about the republication of information originally posted on Twitter. In response to complaints about articles published in the Daily Mail and the Independent on Sunday, the Commission concluded that there had been no breach of Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

The complainant was a civil servant working at the Department for Transport. The articles reported on a number of messages she had posted on her Twitter account about various aspects of, and her feelings towards, her job. In the complainant’s view, this information was private: she had a “reasonable expectation” that her messages would be published only to her 700 or so followers; she had included a clear disclaimer on her Twitter feed that the views expressed there were personal, and were not representative of her employer.

In their defence, both newspapers argued that the complainant’s Twitter account was not private. The posts could be read by anyone and not just those individuals who actively chose to follow her. The complainant had taken no steps to restrict access to her messages (although she did so after the Daily Mail article appeared) and was not publishing material anonymously.

There is coverage of it here and here. However there is a nuance here that is not dicussed and I could not find in either of the official adudications (here and here). What the above quote from the PCC seems to state that the Twitter account is public, but I can’t see that to be the case as you can use Twitter to send private messages – does that mean that those are to be considered public too? Though the PCC do make a point suggesting private is content you’re taken steps to make private.  In the adjudications the PCC state:

The complainant said that her activities on Twitter and other social networking sites were private. While it was true in theory that anybody could view the information she had posted online, she argued that she had a “reasonable expectation that my [Twitter] messages…would be published only to my followers”. Only her 700 or so followers could see the full context of her messages. Others would only find her account by actively searching for her, which seemed an unlikely thing for most people to do, and would only see messages she had posted, not those she was responding to.

and…

This was particularly the case as any message could be “re-tweeted” without the complainant’s consent, or control, to a larger subscription list. This was a notable feature of Twitter. The publicly accessible nature of the information (for which the complainant was responsible) was a key consideration in the Commission’s assessment as to whether it was private.

Which seems to suggest that it is the twitter feed of re-tweetable tweets, and not the whole account that is public? But this seems to ask more questions than it answers. What about Facebook? The big difference between the two (in privacy terms) is that Facebook is by default pivate in that the content is limited to friends whereas Twitter by default is public (able to be viewed by anyone. However it is easy to turn Facebook content, even if private – into a group page anyone can join. So how would they rule on Facebook? I think it should be ruled as private by this ruling’s standards, but there is a grey area…

Hat-tip to Simon for the link.

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